Who does and doesn't get to vote in November could rest on how states, political parties and the federal government respond to the coronavirus threat to U.S. elections.
The pandemic has already caused major disruptions. Partisan legal fights have erupted over how to address voters' concerns about showing up at the polls in person. This week's primary in Wisconsin, with long lines of voters waiting in protective gear to cast their ballots, offered a dire warning of what could lie ahead.
"The real outstanding question is whether or not we're going to have an election system that can deliver for the voters and whether or not we're going to be able to manage everybody being able to vote in November," said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who tracks voter participation.
McDonald said Wisconsin is "just one canary in a coal mine. We have a whole flock of canaries that could also be under severe distress come November."
The focus now is over the expansion of mail-in and absentee balloting to help Americans who have been told to stay in their homes. A handful of states already conduct their elections primarily through the mail. The rest allow some form of absentee voting, but to varying degrees.
It's an increasingly popular form of voting, accounting for nearly 1 in 4 ballots cast in 2018. Even before the pandemic, more states were expanding absentee and vote-by-mail options as a way of providing voters more flexibility and reducing Election Day polling place lines.
Several states have already made changes for upcoming primaries and are considering extending them into November. The question is how much to loosen the rules and who will be affected.
President Trump is among those who believe that Republicans would be hurt. He has made no secret that he does not like mail-in voting — even though he and the first lady cast their ballots that way in last month's Florida primary. He said it provides tremendous potential for voter fraud, although there are only limited examples that such fraud has occurred.
"Mail-in voting is a terrible thing," he told reporters at the White House this week. "I think if you vote, you should go, and even the concept of early voting is not the greatest, because a lot of things happen."
Across several tweets, Trump said absentee voting might be great for "many senior citizens, military, and others who can't get to the polls on Election Day" but that statewide mail-in voting "doesn't work out well for Republicans."
But McDonald and other election experts say that's not necessarily the case. They note that both Republican- and Democratic-led states are among those that use widespread mail-in voting. And recent studies have found that absentee voting doesn't seem to favor one demographic group over another, although older voters do tend to use it more than others.
"There hasn't been strong evidence that a wholesale shift to voting by mail does cause a state to move more Democratic or more Republican," said Patrick Ruffini, partner and co-founder of Echelon Insights, a Republican polling and analytics firm.
The real issue, said Ruffini, is the rules under which expanded vote-by-mail is conducted. Some states require that voters have an excuse — such as being out of state or ill — while others have no-excuse absentee voting. States with all mail-in elections automatically send ballots out to registered votes, while others require voters to request such a ballot. Some states pay the return postage; others do not. Some states require mail-in ballots to be received by Election Day, while others only require that they be postmarked by then.
"The devil is truly in the details," said Ruffini, adding that "any time the voting system changes, even under nonemergency circumstances, you're going to see each party try to change things in a way that they feel like they have the advantage."
The legal fights have already begun.
Wisconsin Republicans successfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court's ruling that absentee primary ballots could be postmarked after Election Day. Citing the chaos in Wisconsin's primary, Texas Democrats filed a suit this week claiming that their state's restrictive mail-in voting rules are unconstitutional. In Georgia, voting rights groups are objecting to a requirement that voters have to pay their own postage, likening it to a poll tax. Republicans are also fighting efforts in some states to allow what they call "ballot harvesting," or the ability of an individual to collect and return absentee ballots for a large number of people.
There are also proposals in Congress and the states to increase early voting and to allow voters to register on Election Day, in an effort to expand access to the polls during the current crisis. Democrats support the changes and Republicans are generally opposed, although again, it's not clear who would benefit the most.
The electorate will likely be different in November than it would have been without the pandemic, but it's too soon to know how, said Tom Bonier, who runs TargetSmart Communications, a Democratic data firm.
"That's the big question and that's what we're seeking to answer at this point. There's too many factors at play in terms of voter safety, changes in voting mechanisms, changes in the economy, changes in voter registration methods and how people can engage in the electorate," Bonier said. "At this point, I think it's safe to say that no one has that answer."
The common belief that Democrats gain when turnout is high and Republicans lose just isn't borne out by the facts, agreed McDonald, the political scientist who studies voter turnout.
The good news is there's enough time for states to make the changes needed to ensure that everyone who wants to vote in November will be able to do so, despite the pandemic, said Ned Foley, an election law expert at the Ohio State University. But he worries that the parties will choose instead to "gerrymander the virus" and shape the rules for political gain.
"You would like to think that patriotism would win out here and that our political leaders would think that the first and most important thing is to get a fair electoral process for the sake of the citizens as a whole. That shouldn't be too hard," he said.
But he thinks the early signs, especially the partisan divide over the conduct of Wisconsin's primary, are not encouraging.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus has already disrupted this year's elections, with many primaries delayed. But how states, political parties and the federal government respond now will shape voting come November. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: President Trump has made no secret that he doesn't like mail-in voting, even though he and the first lady cast their ballots that way in last month's Florida primary.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mail-in voting is a terrible thing. I think if you vote, you should go. And even the concept of early voting is not the greatest because a lot of things happen.
FESSLER: The president said last week such voting methods are ripe for fraud, although there's little evidence that's been the case. Still, many Republicans are suspicious about efforts to expand mail-in balloting. In response to concerns that in-person voting's too risky during a pandemic, they worry the change could give Democrats the edge.
MICHAEL MCDONALD: For better or worse, that's the perception. Now, is that perception based in reality? I don't think that it is.
FESSLER: Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, says there's little evidence that vote by mail favors one party over the other or even a particular demographic group. Still, it's one of many considerations being weighed as election officials and party operatives try to figure out what to do.
Last week's chaotic primary in Wisconsin was a dire warning of what might happen if they don't act. Voters in protective gear waited in line for hours to cast their ballots, and many, like poll worker, Josh Sperko, were worried and frustrated.
JOSH SPERKO: This is going to be really, really bad. There's going to be less people overall than would've turned out normally. People are - there's probably going to be deaths because of this.
FESSLER: McDonald calls Wisconsin's primary just one canary in the coal mine.
MCDONALD: We have a whole flock of canaries that could also be under severe duress when it comes to November.
FESSLER: Several states have already decided to expand mail-in voting for their upcoming primaries; others are considering doing so. There's even some bipartisan support. Despite the opposition of Trump and others in his party, Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist, says the real issue is how any new mail-in voting is conducted.
PATRICK RUFFINI: And the devil is truly in the details when it comes to designing a vote-by-mail regime where it doesn't already exist.
FESSLER: RUFFINI notes that a few states already have predominantly vote-by-mail elections, but most states offer it on a limited basis, and the rules can vary a lot. Some states require excuses, like being ill. Others require witness signatures or that voters pay the return postage. A few states allow people to collect and turn in ballots for a large number of voters, something Republicans vehemently oppose. Ruffini says it's such details that will make all the difference in who supports what.
RUFFINI: Anytime the voting system changes, even under nonemergency circumstances, you're going to see each party try to change things in a way that they feel like, you know, that they have the advantage.
FESSLER: And the legal sparring has already begun. Wisconsin Republicans successfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling that absentee ballots could be postmarked after election day. Texas Democrats also filed suit last week claiming that their state's restrictive mail-in voting rules are unconstitutional. Tom Bonier, who runs a democratic data firm, thinks November's electorate will be a lot different than it would have been before the pandemic, but he's not sure how.
TOM BONIER: That's the big question, and that's what we're seeking to answer at this point. We just don't know. There are too many factors at play in terms of voter safety, changes in voting mechanisms, changes in the economy, changes in voter registration methods.
FESSLER: Congressional Democrats also want states to allow more early voting and same-day registration to help increase access at the polls. There's a general perception that higher turnout helps Democrats and hurts Republicans, although election experts say that's not necessarily true. Ned Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, hopes the main goal is to ensure that everybody who wants to vote in November is still able to do so.
NED FOLEY: The good news is we have time, enough time between now and November to do it. It will be a challenge, but if we are committed to genuine participation for everybody, we ought to be able to meet that challenge.
FESSLER: But he worries about a different scenario - that partisan politics takes over.
FOLEY: And the reason why I'm particularly worried about that is because, you know, any time you get disenfranchisement, that fundamentally undermines the fairness of the system.
FESSLER: And ultimately, public trust in the election results. Foley says what happened in Wisconsin, where voters' health was put at risk because of disagreement over the rules, was not encouraging.
Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.